The onion fields

Though there has been talk of reactivating the old Anaconda open pit mine in Lyon County, so far it has come to nothing.

“The scent of onions often perfumes the air,” wrote someone on an online message board in response to someone who had asked for information on Yerington, where she had been offered a job.

On the other hand, the minutes of a Lyon County Commissioners meeting in 2010 reported that during the public comment period a local resident “spoke about the odor and fly issue in south Mason Valley due to rotting onions.”

On a third hand, Peri and Sons Farms, an operation with an ambitious organic program, has an interest in having its onions thought of positively: “Our onions are ethically-grown using certified, clean, safe and traceable practices,” reads its website.

Now, those heavily debated onions, a mainstay of Lyon County, have become a player in new debates over an earlier mainstay of the county—the now-abandoned Anaconda mine pit.

For the better part of a century, regulation of Nevada mines was minimal, with the result that when a mine closed, the owners could more or less walk away. They didn’t have to replace their divots or clean up after themselves. As a result, there are nasty environmental hazards all over the state.

In Lyon County, Anaconda shut down its 3,400-plus acre copper mining operation near Yerington in 1982 after 64 years. It had opened during World War I as the Empire Nevada Mine. When operations ceased, so did groundwater pumping, with the result that the open pit filled, and a huge lake is now in the pit.

Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) acquired the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in 1977 for $700 million, a fateful purchase. Copper prices soon tumbled and Anaconda operations in Nevada and elsewhere were closed. What ARCO mostly got from the purchase was a lot of environmental disaster sites. Pit operations in Montana and Nevada are now on Superfund application lists, but the likelihood of the Nevada site getting much Superfund money anytime soon is unlikely because “it is not on the National Priority List (NPL) of sites,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Nevada has sought Superfund money for more than 200 sites, most of them former mines, and only one—the bed of the Carson River, contaminated by Comstock-era mining wastes—has been designated a Superfund site.

Part of that lack of urgency about Yerington stems from testing done by the EPA. Testing in 2004 suggested levels of uranium were higher than the EPA standard (“Environment,” RN&R, April 15, 2004), but in 2007 it conducted additional tests.

A March 2011 EPA bulletin on the Lyon County site read in part, “In 2007, EPA conducted tests of onions grown adjacent to the Anaconda site and irrigated from a supply well located just north of the site boundary. The onions were selected from random areas of the field and were not washed or trimmed prior to analysis. The onions were analyzed for uranium, a primary site contaminant. The results showed that uranium levels in the onions were low, and below levels typically found naturally in onions from other areas of the United States. Accordingly, EPA concluded that the test results showed that the Anaconda mine did not elevate uranium levels in local onions.”

EPA liked that verbiage so much that it repeated it word for word in a subsequent bulletin issued in August.

But last week Associated Press reporter Scott Sonner reported that newly available documents indicate that what the EPA called “tests of onions” was insufficiently specific. They were actually tests of four onions. That’s four individual onions, not four cartons of onions.

Sonner reports that the Colorado contractor who obtained the four onions warned the EPA that they constituted an inadequate sample for final conclusions.

The AP revelation incensed some residents of the area, including the Yerington Paiute Tribe.

In November the tribe issued a prepared statement that called for “capping the site—a method that covers a mine site to substantially eliminate movement of contaminants from the site—[as] the only appropriate measure due to the threat from contaminated soil and water. The estimated cost of this option is $60,000,000 but would qualify for the federal Superfund program. … Capping this part of the Anaconda mine site not only helps address the threat to community health and natural resources but it also presents a substantial economic development opportunity for Lyon County through job creation associated with the project.”

The EPA has gathered pledges for about $6 million from various past operators of the mine, including $2.7 million from short-term owner ARCO.

With Superfund money unlikely and EPA action uncertain, that left the issue to the courts, and many residents are suing ARCO. U.S. District Judge Robert Jones last week set a trial date in June 2013, saying that it will take at least that long for discovery proceedings in such a monster case.

Some remediation, such as the removal of tons of contaminated soil, has been done at the site, but it remains an ecological disaster area.

Besides soil contamination, water is also an issue. EPA tests in 2010 found uranium and arsenic levels in most drinking water to be far above what the agency considers safe. For eight years BP, the corporate parent of ARCO, has provided bottled water to residents whose wells have heavy concentrations of uranium.

In April last year, Singatse Peak Services of Vancouver became the latest owner of the land. At the time, Singatse CEO Thomas Patton said he hoped to reopen the mine in view of rising copper prices and because “one of the quickest, most efficient methods of correcting issues at former mine sites is to put those sites back into production.” That has not happened.

Peri and Sons Farms, once described by a farming trade journal as “Crusaders for Onions Born in the U.S.A.,” has a stake in the purity of the soil, which would seemingly make Peri and the tribe natural allies. But Peri attorney Brad Johnson said he is satisfied with the EPA’s assessments, and he was harshly critical of the tribe for faulting the small onion sample.

“The EPA is not basing its statements and conclusions just on the [onions] sample,” he said. “The tribe ignored all the other evidence,” including additional agriculture studies.

Johnson claimed the tribe has made allegations that are “demonstrably false,” including that the test onions were already packed for distribution when obtained and that a Peri well is contaminated when in fact that well no longer actually exists.

He said further, “There is an effort by them to promote a litigation strategy for the benefit of the tribe.” Peri had offered to meet with the tribe without success, he said.

Johnson was also critical of the AP for not including more of a written statement he gave Sonner in its story.

Tribal environmental consultant Dietrick McGinnis said of Johnson’s statements, “We’ve met with them before. Their reaction is a bit of a surprise.”

He said there are more than 40 substances that are suspect besides uranium and he is not satisfied with the EPA work. “There’s many issues associated with that site,” he said. “Uranium is just one of them.”

In a letter to the tribe last week, the EPA’s San Francisco office said the agency “considered many lines of evidence” in making its determination of safety in farm products.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.